Saturday, February 15, 2020

OSE Notes

Not quite a review.

Picked up Old School Essentials via Humble Bundle recently.  I don't think I've actually read a B/X retroclone besides ACKS (and maybe skimming Labyrinth Lord).  My understanding is that OSE is quite faithful, so the things I was surprised about were probably things that ACKS changed.  People on the ACKS discord have told me several times that I would complain less if I had actually run B/X, so... maybe I will.

First pleasant surprise was in ability scores.  I like that reaction roll bonus from Charisma caps at +2, rather than +3 in ACKS.  Likewise Dexterity's bonus to initiative.  This comes at the price of ability score bonuses being a little less standard and easy to remember.

They have the rule about trading down scores to raise your prime reqs, but they don't have one about rolling a bunch of sets.  I think it's probably important to only have one or the other of those rules; given one set of 3d6 in order, trading down seems much more reasonable, and parties where half of PCs have an 18 prime req shouldn't be too common.

Alignment languages.  -_-  Also this table introduced with "the following languages are common" includes doppelganger and harpy.  Man.

The art in this book is weird, by which I mean highly varied.  Some of it's cutesy-cartoony, some of it's sober black and white line drawings, the Giant Leech and Green Slime pieces are very...  visceral.  Feels less thematically consistent than eg ACKS or DCC.

Classes

Magic research available from 1st level to all casters.  I guess this was true in ACKS too, for spell research, and I should come back to this when I get to that part of the book.

Turning - rolled on 2d6 instead of 1d20, so I initially misinterpreted this table.  Still, interesting that you can't turn undead of 3HD more than you, while you can in ACKS (on 19+).  No miraculous deliverance here, I guess.  Whoa, and 2* HD gets its own column, for ghouls I guess, so that means a 1st level cleric can't even turn 3HD undead.  Also I have to say that I like making the target value a function of HD rather than creature type explicit.  On the other hand, having the effectiveness of turning on giant skeletons be limited by HD rolled on the 2d6 instead of the turning roll was kind of fun sometimes.  Text is not clear on how often one can turn; I rather liked ACKS' "faith shaken" rule.  Also no option to control the undead.

The THAC0 and save progression is different; ACKS smoothed it, so "+2 every n levels" meant "+1 every n/2 levels".  Here the only difference between a 1st and 3rd level fighter is HP; the gap between "veteran" and "hero" at 4th level is much bigger (and likewise "hero" from 4th-6th vs "super-hero" at 7th-9th).

Where are the level titles ):

Infravision...  hmm.  I think I agree with ACKS on this one, that infravision for PCs is mostly trouble because it circumvents torch logistics right out the gate.  It also makes the dwarf vs fighter contest even better for the dwarf, what with the saves and the fairly low XP-to-level bump.  I guess fighter's domain game is better, in that they can build a stronghold at any time while the dwarf has to wait until 9th, and the domainy rules say that a peasant family yields 10gp/year in taxes (with no expenses!  Wow!), and the dwarf can only hire dwarven mercenaries (not so bad since there are no market limits, but no heavy cav for you).  Still, rough for the fighter at low levels.

Elf prime reqs are weird, Str 16+ and Int 13+ to get +10%.

Fighters get jack shit but plate, shields, and d8 HD.  Not even +morale for hirelings, unless it's hidden later in the book.

Halflings have a min Con 9+, interesting.  Bonus to AC against big enemies, but otherwise basically Explorers with plate, a level cap of 8, and an "any time they wish" domain game.  "Explorers with plate" is a scary thought, but I guess less scary for lack of fighter damage bonus.

Wow, MUs can only use daggers, no quarterstaves or darts.  Harsh.  And no tower until 11th level.  Oh yeah, and vancian magic, no repertoire.

Thief - can't trade down Strength during chargen, weird.  Traps are divided into room traps and treasure traps; the former are big and protect areas and anyone can find them, the latter are small and mechanical and only thieves can deal with them.  An interesting split; in my own games, it is accurate to say that I use treasure traps almost exclusively, and this is probably niche protection for thieves.  Bleh, percentile thief skills.  And two-letter abbreviations for skills would take some getting used to.

Oh man backstab damage multiplier doesn't scale up, it's just x2 forever.  That makes high-level thieves substantially less scary; their skills still get really good, but you're never going to force a morale check for half HP in the opening round against high HD opponents (assuming morale check for half HP is still a thing), nor are you ever going to insta-kill ogres.

This probably also explains death attack, that assassin ability that I've only ever seen someone use once.  Death attack always seemed dumb when scaling backstab/sneak attack damage was available, but if backstab is only ever x2, then death attack is actually worthwhile.

So now I'm wondering if thieves scale sort of like MUs - at low levels they don't get to do their thing very often (because low skill rolls and few spell slots) but when they do it's often a big encounter win (insta-kill backstab against low-HD opponents forcing morale, or sleep), and at high levels they get to do their thing a lot more often (more spell slots, higher skill rolls) but it's decisive much less often (because high-HD opponents are much more likely to save and have enough HP to not die to backstab).  It would be an interesting experiment to make death attack the default behavior of backstab, such that the parallel with high-HD enemy saves becomes more explicit.

I also don't love that for d6 rolls, you want a 1-to-x, so rolling low is good.  It didn't register when I was reading Dwarf and Elf because their Hear Noises and Find Secret Wotsits are "2-in-6" which could be rolled either way, whereas the Thief table has 1-2, 1-3, 1-4... for Hear Noises.

On the other hand, there's probably an argument from poorly-balanced dice; if half of rolls are "roll low" and half of rolls are "roll high", then even if your dice are badly balanced it should work out in expectation (until you start measuring how unbalanced your dice are and picking different dice for the different types of roll - but if you were already going to measure the unbalance, then it doesn't matter.  I could see it being sensible during the early days of the hobby, when I expect the quality of dice might've been lower and they were harder to come by so you probably didn't have four d20s to choose from).

I'm surprised that in Levelling Up, you don't reroll all your HD every level and take the better of your previous or just-rolled max HP.  I thought I had heard that OSE had that rule.  Must've been some other clone.

Here are my level titles.  But they're not linked to particular levels.  Big bummer.

Oh boy rules for levels >14.  Not something I see using much.

Inheritance - I'm not sure I understand the meaning of "a player may only leave a character inheritance once", and I certainly don't understand the intent?

Equipment

Encumbrance is measured in coins.  This is kinda clever, because it makes it sort of obvious that the stuff you should be worrying about getting encumbered with is treasure.  On the downside, it also seems like kind of a pain in the ass.  Encumbrance is optional, apparently (!?), and there's no encumbrance listed for misc adventuring gear like 10' poles - just armor, weapons, and treasure.

Only three armors, leather, chain, plate.  Nice.  Chain seems kind of crap, since it weighs almost as much as plate but gets 2 points less of AC.

No reach weapons, and 2H weapons act last instead of just -1 to init.  Brutal.  Since variable weapon damage (ie, "2H swords do d10", as opposed to "all weapons do d6") is an optional rule, 2H seems totally worthless under default rules.  OTOH, with the variable weapon damage rule, d10 is much stronger in the absence of fighter damage bonus.  Bonus to hit with ranged weapons at close range.  Maybe part of the reason MUs don't get darts is that darts just don't exist.  Huh, crossbows act last too...  but who uses crossbows?  I don't think there was a class that got crossbows but not bows...  I guess dwarves and halflings maybe, who can't use longbows, are faced with the choice between 240' range and acting last, or 150' range and not acting last.

I like vehicles and mounts as much as the next guy, and it makes sense to have something about them in with equipment because they're things that you buy, but I dunno if rules for vehicle damage, repair, boarding, and ramming needed to come before Combat is explained.  I do like the distinction between ocean-going and unseaworthy vessels.

I love the art for the Camel, and the dwarves? sneaking up on a sea serpent in a ship graveyard is pretty good too.

Magic

Full vancian, and no bonus slots or anything for high Int or Wis.  Can only have spells in spellbook up to number you can cast per day, and you can't read spellbooks captured from enemies "without the use of magic" (presumably Read Magic).  Oof.  I dunno, I like how ACKS encourages wizards to kill other wizards and take their books.  Having to use spell slots on Read Magic is rough.  I feel like this might be a good use for the Scholastic Wizardry proficiency in ACKS; clarify that reading other peoples' books and scrolls requires a roll, and then make Schol. Wiz. give a bonus.

Chance of failure for magic research (both item creation and spell research) is "minimum probability of 15%".  So on the one hand, because that's a Schelling point in the rules, probably about 15% most of the time, which is way more lenient than ACKS (at least for the level ranges we mostly find ourselves in).  But it does give judge discretion to go "that sounds really hard, you can do it on 16+ or 12+ with a special ingredient..."  Oh, and no library or laboratory requirements.  So definitely seems easier than ACKS' research most of the time (but you don't get XP for it).

I'm not going to read all these spells.  What is interesting is that there are fewer cleric spells (6-8 per spell level, instead of 10).  Missing spells:

1st: Command Word, Sanctuary
2nd: Augury, Delay Poison, Spiritual Weapon (but they gain Know Alignment)
3rd: Cure Blindness, Feign Death, Glyph of Warding, Speak with Dead
4th: Dispel Magic, Divination, Smite Undead, Tongues
5th: Atonement, Flame Strike, Strength of Mind, True Seeing

Wow.  Flame Strike, Spiritual Weapon, and Dispel Magic are all pretty solid losses, and we had bacon saved by Augury, Sanctuary, and Delay Poison a time or two.  But it's also not super-surprising; if I had to pick spells that felt the least like Cleric spells, Flame Strike and Spiritual Weapon would definitely be on the list.

On the MU front:

1st: Read Languages and Read Magic are two separate spells, Magic Mouth missing
6th: Lower Water and Part Water are separate spells, Wall of Iron missing

So it looks like MU keeps most of their good stuff.

Know Alignment vs Detect Evil - Detect Evil operates solely on present intent, whereas Know Alignment can tell you what their alignment is (but isn't a wide-area scan).

Bless operates on a "20' square area", weird.  But I guess if you're thinking in 10' squares and don't want to deal with circular areas of effect, it would be convenient.

I actually kind of like the layout of the spell effects.  It's not as lawyerly as ACKS, doesn't go as far into details and edge cases, but it gets the point across.

Cure Serious Wounds nerfed, 2d6+2 with no scaling by caster level.

Raise Dead is obviously much less punitive than RL&L, with no permanent side effects, but the time limit is pretty tight.

Sleep is still as good.

You can cast Invisibility on objects and it's permanent.  This could not possibly be exploited.

Phantasmal Force seems stronger, since psychosomatic effects last for 1d4 turns instead of ACKS' 1d3 rounds.  Kind of unreasonable, but compare to Web I guess.

Fly duration is randomized, glorious.  Does the caster roll it or do I get to roll it in secret?

Fireball is 20' radius, glorious.  Hmm, no expand to volume clause though, which is odd because Lightning Bolt still bounces.

No aging clause on Haste, whoa.

Wall of Fire is duration: concentration, no good for covering retreats.

Teleport has a 10' range, now you don't have to poke people to teleport them to their deaths.

Death Spell has a lower HD cap (7 vs 8).  Disintegration can disintegrate a whole ship!

Done with spells.

Adventuring

Party organization: Class and level mix recommendations, party caller, mapper, system for divvying up magic loot between party members when it's contested.  Nice.

Ten coins per pound - big honkin' coins.

The Encumbrance page is probably the most "hrmmm" page of the book for me.  Not tracking weight of misc adventuring gear (or having a fixed weight of 80 coins) seems like it would remove a substantial strategic element from the game (balancing military oil vs torches, choosing what equipment to dump if you find a lot of treasure).  But I do appreciate the simplicity of it.  I wonder if it's worth having a catch-all "misc adventuring gear" weight that covers sacks and backpacks, and then having weight for a small subset of adventuring gear where tradeoffs are easy to come by (consumables, maybe?  Oil, torches, spikes?).

Or you do 100-coin kits.

But, when these rules are in use, they're much less lenient for the main thing that they care about, extracting treasure.  In ACKS, with 1000 coins per stone, you can carry out a couple thousand GP on top of your gear, per character, while maintaining 60' speed.  Here, you're hard-capped at 1600 coins per character, so if you're not finding platinum, it's going to take a couple expeditions to go from (say) 4th to 5th level (8000 XP for a fighter -> 5 fully-laden expeditions of just gold pieces).  So leveling is probably slower?  Compared to ACKS, your exploration movement is pretty close until your find treasure (faster for thieves and wizards, similar for heavily-armored characters), and then your speed drops much more aggressively.  Interesting.  Maybe this preserves tradeoffs adequately.  It's always surprising to me how a one-page Optional Rules module like encumbrance or variable weapon damage can have big consequences for the way the game plays.  Complex systems.

Mm, roll under again in ability checks, and auto-fail / success on 20 and 1.

Death at 0HP.  Unforgiving.  No clause on natural healing about safe / sanitary conditions.

Drowning example on light armor with a light load seems awfully merciful.

I like the Sequence of Play Per Turn sidebar / box.  I do have a soft spot for programs and flowcharts though.

So there's this note about how undead don't make noise and aren't detectable by listening.  If infravision operates by heat, should undead be invisible to / high chance to surprise infravision too?  That would be a fun piece of dungeon ecology, where monsters, who rely on infravision, are extra-afraid of undead because they're considered sneaky.

"One chance" clauses on room searching and door-listening - per expedition, presumably?  Not for the character's lifetime?

Traps don't make attack rolls, always hit - nasty.  Wonder if they allow saves.

I like that it specifies that random dungeon encounters are at 2d6x10 feet and headed towards the party.  Position and vector.  This puts some immanence on the blips.

OK, I get it now - these subsections are organized alphabetically, which is why Climbing comes first and Wandering Monsters come last, even though the latter happens a lot more often / is more important than the former.  That's an interesting choice.  I don't like that it leads to forward references (like Flying wilderness movement pointing to Overland movement, which you wouldn't've read yet since it comes after), but this probably doesn't matter in play for this particular case, because you're likely to do a lot of normal overland movement before flying becomes a possibility, so it should be familiar by then.

Hunting and foraging are much less merciful than ACKS, because "the party has a 1-in-6 chance of finding enough food for 1d6 human-sized beings" rather than each individual forager having a chance.  So wilderness adventuring is much less sustainable and must rely more heavily on rations...  but encumbrance from rations isn't tracked, so it's just a question of expenses.  Maybe that's fine though?  But with the amount of money people accumulate by wilderness level, and the lower emphasis on cash-sinks like domains and libraries and reserve XP, I don't really see 15gp/person/week for iron rations being that big a deal (incidentally, I do like that rations are priced per week).

The "surrounded" rule on wilderness surprise is interesting (If a group of three or more monsters gets surprise, they may surround the party).

Wilderness visibility is cursory but does hit the important bit, of "3 miles to the horizon in open terrain".  Encounter distance doesn't vary by weather or terrain.

It's sort of interesting that waterborne adventure gets equal pagecount / emphasis with dungeon and wilderness adventuring.

It's weird that surprise doesn't change encounter distance for dungeon encounters, but does for wilderness and waterborne.

Wilderness evasion table looks pretty similar, might need a spreadsheet to suss out subtle differences.  Not feeling it a the moment.

Combat

Monster morale is optional too!

Each side rolls init each round.  I like every round, I dunno about each side acting together.  Maybe it's not so bad if you have a caller.  Individual init available as an optional rule.  I guess it does make sense if you put the first initiative roll before the reaction roll, when the side as a whole decides to fight, run, or talk.  I suppose one could do per-side initiative for that initial choice, and then individual initiative per combat round.  I do like that per-side initiative makes dexterity somewhat weaker, as it is a strong stat in ACKS.  I could see the argument that per-side initiative doesn't change that much because monsters were already acting as a side before, it's just that the PCs all win together or lose together.  Implications for interrupting spellcasters?  Half the time all the party's spellcasters will be totally safe from interruption, when the party as a whole wins.  A bit "double or nothing".

The Combat Sequence Per Round suggests that everyone on a side moves, then missile attacks happen, then spells are resolved, then melee attacks happen.  This is very different from the turn structure for 3.x or ACKS, but I think it makes a lot of sense for initiative by side, imposing some order on the otherwise potential chaos of simultaneous action by n players.

I don't think I really grok the implications of fighting withdrawal and retreat yet in a by-side initiative system.  You have to pre-declare them, and then if your side wins init you get to move away (and then maybe attack someone else if you withdrew - implied by retreat noting that you can't attack), but then enemy can pursue on their move, OR the enemy wins init, they get to attack you, and then you get to move (and attack if withdrew and anyone within reach).  Maybe the important things are 1) enemies know that you declared to withdraw and can target you selectively if they win init, and 2) if you declare retreat you can't attack and are easy to hit (but if you declare withdraw, you can still attack in the round after moving "up to" half your movement, and 0 is less than half your movement, so you could declare, not move, and then attack whatever you're engaged with?  But that seems counter to the intent; there's not much reason to not declare withdraw if you can just remain engaged and attack.  I guess if you declare withdraw and the enemy also declares withdraw/retreat, then whoever loses init can't pursue, since it does specify "moves backwards"?).

I'm probably trying to lawyer something that was not intended to be lawyered here.  The reasonable response to "I declare withdraw, things are looking OK, I want to move 0 and attack" is probably "No, you committed to withdraw, you have to withdraw."

"Movement and attacking may be combined in the same round" is pretty ambiguous; presumably it means that you can move and then attack, not that you can move, attack, move.

Attacks from behind only ignore shield AC; I like ACKS' "ignore shield and +2 to hit".  Blindness is unable to attack instead of -4 which is probably reasonable really.  I like that there are rules for dropping stuff from flying monsters, this is something my players tried in ACKS and I didn't have rules for it.

A notable omission: charging.  Looking around a bit, it seems like you can charge for double damage with a lance on horseback, and some monsters like gorgons, elephants, and rhinos have a special charge attack, but for most people and monsters, charging isn't a thing.  This means that the ability to set a weapon against charges is not very important either.  Spears are still Not Bad though; they're one of the least expensive and lightest-weight d6 weapons, and they have the best range of any thrown weapon except javelins, which deal less damage.

Retainers, Hirelings, and Domains

Retainers / henchmen don't check morale ):  But what of Wiglaf's speech?  On the other hand, they do desert after adventures more often than in ACKS probably.

Retainers are paid a flat wage per day or per adventure (be still my low-continuity heart), but no such wage is listed, but a half-share of treasure rather than a sixth like in ACKS.  L0s can level into any class (...  presumably not a demihuman class, though that would be pretty funny).  Can't pile up Fanatical loyalty bonuses since loyalty rolls are just pass/fail.  Check loyalty after each adventure, and on a failure they "won't work for the PC again."  But other PCs can hire them.  That seems a little harsh, I could see working for a previous employer again but not for at least one adventure and you have to re-hire them.

Mercenary wages include supply costs.  Armorers are straight profit, since they cost 100gp/mo and can produce a suit of armor per month (worth 500gp in the case of plate), and that's before you add assistants and blacksmiths; with four assistants at 15gp/mo each and two smiths at 25gp/mo each, for a total cost of 210gp/mo, can produce four suits of plate per month.  It seems kind of bullshit that if you interrupt an animal's training it can't learn any more tricks.  I dislike that sages are fallible; I like Courtney's position from Downtime and Demesnes, that sages should be expensive but an ultimate source of truth from DM to players.  I like having spies be used for spying on groups or people, rather than for rolling in sick hijink cash, but they're also 4x the cost that they are in ACKS.

The mercenaries vs purple worm art is pretty good.  And in a system without cleaves, the worm probably isn't really that threatening to massed troops.  I do like that the construction procedure is a bulleted list.  Half a page of domain rules, only concrete numbers are how big an area mercenaries can patrol and tax revenue per settler.  Structure prices are broadly similar to ACKS', except for civilian buildings which cost about double.

Monsters

Statblocks are very dense.  I like that saves and THAC0 are in the statblocks.  Putting Number Encountered at the end is odd, especially between treasure and XP (which are both "end of combat / end of adventure" concerns and belong together).  I think there's a reasonable case for putting combat stats first because you refer to them multiple times in a single combat, but having to dig Number Encountered out of the monster listing after rolling a random encounter seems annoying.  Wilderness Lairs are just 5x as big as a dungeon lair; less complex lair / organization structures than ACKS (no gang champions for demihumans, just lair leaders...  and honestly I might be OK with this simplification.  Might miss witch-doctors though).  No "percent in lair"?  I like that it's explicit that 20% of sentient monsters speak Common.  There are some treasure types for like "goblin pocket change" individual-monster treasure.  Seems kind of annoying that these individual (crappy) treasure types are the highest letters, but that's backwards compatibility for you.

I like that behaviors are pulled out as bullets in monster descriptions; very Trilemma.

I'm not sure how I feel about having average HP in the stats.  I like rolling HP, but recognize that it can be a hassle.

I like the art for Bears.  Big cats are inquisitive.  Cave locusts can spit.  Dervishes are likely to ask Lawful characters to join their holy war.  I don't love the layout on Djinni - the Magic Powers block is really big.

No Dog entry ):  RIP war dogs, not only not on the equipment list, not even in the monsters section.

Dragons are primarily by color, with age as a secondary thing that you can tweak.  Breath weapon does dragon's current HP in damage, so injured ACKS dragons have more dangerous breath weapons than comparably-injured OSE dragons, but full-health ACKS dragons have less dangerous breath weapons than full health OSE dragons.  Dragons may pretend to be asleep - ouch.

Dragon Turtles are still king.  With good art, too.

The elemental statblocks are kind of a mess.  It's not as bad as it could be though.

Maybe Giant Ferrets are the new war dogs.

"After paralyzing a target, ghouls will attack others" rather than just whaling on the paralyzed guy.

Giants are treasure type E+5000gp.  I like that +n thing.  It's weird that they're all E; I bet ACKS did a pass over hoard types and changed things up there (giants in ACKS are mostly N, gnolls are G instead of D, examples probably abound).

More types of golems.  Lizardmen are canonically man-eaters.  I like that the Demon Boar is under the lycanthrope entry.

Rust monsters immune to nonmagical damage.  So much for "send the mage in with a wooden quarterstaff".  Not that they can use staves here anyway.

Tarentella, with dancing poison, is a hilarious monster.

"Water termite"?  With an ink cloud ability?  Wat.

It seems like monsters are worth less XP, too - Wight is 50 in OSE vs 80 in ACKS, Wolf is 25 vs 35, Wyvern is 850 vs 1140, Zombie is 20 vs 29.

Encounter tables

1d20 for dungeon encounters, rather than 1d12, with more chances for potential friendlies like Traders, Halflings, and Nobles.  And tables going down to dungeon level 8.  No notes about rolling on an adjacent level table and adjusting the number encountered.  Wilderness encounter tables look broadly similar to ACKS' but organized slightly differently.

NPC parties are generated at Basic or Expert level, rather than picking a party level and generating around that.  NPC parties are more likely to be Chaotic in OSE than ACKS.

NPC strongholds and reaction to travelers is interesting and fits nicely with "NPC domains are the next step up from wilderness monster lairs in danger, make a reaction roll".

DMing Stuff

Kinda skimming here.  Expected rate of advancement is 3-4 sessions for at least one PC to reach 2nd level (presumably a cleric or thief).  Disagree with their stance on excess wealth, that DM should find a way to dispose of it (although I suppose if you must, it is best to offer them a choice between money and trouble, as suggested).  Sort of disagree with keeping stats secret, in the vein of rolling everything in front of the screen.

I like describing rooms by square counts rather than in feet.  Notes on running monsters and NPCs are decent - basically just "don't play dumb, but don't preemptively counter stuff that these monsters haven't seen the PCs do before".

Mist trap that doesn't do anything is trolling hard.  Most traps do give saves.

Wilderness can be mapped on either hexes or graph paper.  More and more these days I'm leaning towards a grid; it's just so much easier to program around.  Recommended distance between base town and dungeons is one day's travel; certainly for a starter dungeon (or I guess for a deep mega that is going to be a campaign tentpole).

Base town - "possibly more advanced services such as curing diseases or even raising the dead".  Sounds very "not available by default".  Which I guess is why there are no spellcasting services on the equipment or hireling tables.

Treasure usually accounts "for 3/4 or more of the total XP earned."  No XP for magical treasure, no option to sell it.

Awarded XP is always divided evenly - bummer.  And it sounds like retainers actually cost a full share of XP, but only get half of that, which is a pretty strong deterrent to relying heavily on them.

Treasure

Wow, treasure types are totally disorganized rather than roughly ordered by value.

Retainers may agree to be test subjects for magic item identification, but only if they can keep the item.  That's great.  No real rules for identification.

I do like that gem values are condensed a bit, though I think the expected value is lower.

Separate Basic column on magic item tables that generates lower-level items; more potions, fewer scrolls, and more misc weapons.

50% of magic armor is chainmail.  Magic armor weighs 50% less rather than 1 stone (100 coins) less per bonus.

Bags of Holding, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Helms of Telepathy, Crystal Balls, and Rings of Invisibility are all Basic items.  Daaang.  Maybe the relatively-high availability of solid items in the low levels helps differentiate characters who lack proficiencies and who have a much coarser-grained THAC0/saves curve.

Potion of Longevity can occur in random treasures.  But there aren't rules for aging so it doesn't matter much.  I guess it's basically poison to an adventurer in their early 20s.

30% of magic swords are sentient (versus single-digit percentages in ACKS), plus a 5% independent chance of special purpose+sentient.  Lawful and Chaotic swords of purpose are basically save-or-die on hit against target of purpose; Neutral swords of purpose give you a merger +1 to saves against enemies that it hates.  Amusing.

None of the misc magic weapons are cursed.

Conclusions

And we're through!  There's some pretty good art in the Index, bit sad that it ended up back here.  Author's notes on things he clarified or corrected from B/X reinforce the feeling that it's a darn faithful clone.

Characters seem weaker across the board here than in ACKS.  I do think the MU gets a pretty good deal of it (vancian is annoying, but you can still cast as many sleeps per day), as do the demihumans with infravision.  Complaints that fighter and thief are weak seem totally justified.  I wonder if what I want is somewhere about halfway between B/X  and ACKS; small damage bonuses for fighters and bring back cleaves, backstab multipliers that do rise but slowly, drop infravision, more logistics and gear tracking than B/X but less logistics than ACKS, simple domains.  A Half-ACKS'd Hack, if you will.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Rain and Visibility, Compasses

A winter follow-up to Eyes of the Eagle.

Winter in the Pacific Northwest has given me ample opportunity to observe the effects of rain and humidity on the visibility of distant objects.  On a rainy day, even when it isn't actively raining, I can see buildings and bridges that are 3-4 miles away, and usually tall buildings that are 5-6 miles away, but seeing the mountains 40-50 miles away is not happening.  When it is actively raining, buildings two miles away are often obscured.  The position of the sun behind the cloud layer is somewhat vague; likewise the moon.  The stars are totally obscured.

I've been thinking about the mechanics for getting lost during wilderness adventures and how they're sort of shit.  I think rain should play a big part of in-world explanations for why getting lost happens.  Distant landmarks disappear, celestial navigation becomes difficult, it just makes sense.  I think, if you're tracking the party on a six-mile hex map and determining what they can see, on a rainy day it would be reasonable to limit vision to just adjacent hexes.  Then, due to vagueness of celestial navigation, when the party attempts to move in a particular direction on a rainy / heavily overcast day, they may err by one hex-side.  During actual rain or stormy weather, restricting vision to only the current hex is probably reasonable, which is the point where you really start to run into likely errors if you try to travel.  If you're treating things a little more abstractly, where you don't figure out exactly what other hexes your players can see, maybe rainy weather imposes a -4 to Navigation throws, and stormy weather imposes a -8.

The difficulty in telling north by the position of the sun might prompt players to ask "What about compasses?"  Compasses don't appear on the mundane equipment lists in the SRDs for any of 3rd edition, 5th edition, Pathfinder, or ACKS.  Historically, magnetic compasses were developed by the Chinese and were definitely used for navigation by around 1000AD, with the earliest documentation of the use of a compass by European sailors was in the 1200s and likewise first documented in the Muslim world in the 1200s.  So probably not something you'd want in a game set in fantasy antiquity or the viking age, but might be reasonable for your average high medieval game or for Oriental Adventures.  Certainly it's less anachronistic than the 1600s-era spyglass present on several of the mundane equipment tables.

There was an additional note in the History of the Compass wikipedia article that I found interesting:
While the practice from ancient times had been to curtail sea travel [on the Mediterranean]  between October and April, due in part to the lack of dependable clear skies during the Mediterranean winter, the prolongation of the sailing season resulted in a gradual, but sustained increase in shipping movement; by around 1290 the sailing season could start in late January or February, and end in December.
Which reinforces my belief that persistent overcast should induce a substantial navigation penalty - it was enough to prevent shipping for six months out of the year.  Granted, the penalty on any one daily navigation roll doesn't need to be very large for the effects on a long sea voyage to add up.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Reviewish: Arbiter of Worlds

Autarch recently put out a book of DMing advice, titled Arbiter of Worlds.  I picked it up because someone in the ACKS discord mentioned that it had a section on competitive player-group dynamics, which I have enjoyed in the past, and read it on the plane during holiday travel recently.  It has been a long time since I last read a DMing advice book (the last being How to Run, by Alexis, which I should probably finish and review at some point).

Impressions:

I agree with much of what he says about the functions of the DM / judge, their relative importance, and the importance of agency, and I think it's a pretty good statement of the position.  Reasonably concise (but longer than a blog post would bear) and well-argued.

His framing of the sandbox region as a story-web was interesting.  Much of the actionable advice on stocking a sandbox and linking things together was either repeated from ACKS or similar to the existing wilderness exploration literature (Western Marches on danger pockets and Treasure Tells a Story, for example), but the ACKS region-construction guidelines were elaborated on in the context of agency, and thinking of it as a planned web for potential emergent stories was interesting and different from how I usually do things (links emerging as a result of random treasure maps rolled during play).  One thing that I'd've liked to see was extrapolation of this structure into the dungeon, since I think it does generalize - a large, jayquayed, exploration-oriented dungeon could certainly have a structure of hooks/pointers within it, which point players into different parts of the dungeon.

I liked that he talked about his personal worldbuilding process and the player's guide and gazetteer outputs of that process.  Would be fine material for the Secrets chapter of ACKS 2e, if that ever happens.  Also waaay more work up front than I will ever do.

I was surprised that he uses triggers in his living worlds.  "When the players enter town X for the first time, they find signs for a tournament in three days", as opposed to "The tournament occurs annually on the 15th of Juntober, and signs are posted two weeks prior."  Less hard-simulationist than I expected (there was more to the living worlds section that that, but triggers were the biggest surprise to me).

I was a little disappointed to find that the social dynamic I enjoyed watching during the 2012 campaign wasn't quite covered by his categorization of group social norms into collective, competitive-collective, and individualist.  I think we fell somewhere between competitive-collective and individualist.  Maybe I should go back and really figure out what the norms we were playing by were, and get them down in writing.  It might've been an unstable equilibrium; it did break down eventually.

The discussion of limiting the powers of villains explains a lot of the changes to high-level spells in ACKS.

Canons of interpretation is a very lawyer way to look at the process of making rulings during play.  I think my process of rulings is somewhat more consequentialist - what is the function of this ambiguous rule, why is it here, what are the consequences for the system of each possible interpretation or change?  It's the "legacy software maintainer" perspective on rules changes (at work the other day I was dealing with a codebase that had comments that affected the function of the code.  Load-bearing comments.  Terrifying).  The canons seem to be mostly about dealing with the semantics of natural language.  Maybe they were developed in acknowledgement of the impossibility of understanding all the consequences of a ruling in a complex system.  Food for thought.

I found the focus on describing blows in combat in graphic detail surprising, but it explains the mortal wounds table pretty well.
Given that everyone comes into RPGs wanting to use their imagination, the reasons why combat devolves to simple mechanics are somewhat mysterious to me.  I think it may be because nothing is at stake.  It's hard to conjure up the energy for vivid imagery when it doesn't really matter.
Personally, I run very mechanical, low-description combat.  Playing 3.x, maybe it was because the stakes were low.  Playing ACKS, it might be habit carry-over, but it might also be because of the rules.  I don't want to describe a player's killing blow as decapitating a foe by fiat, because the correct procedure within the rules is to wait for the party to check him for mortal wounds if they decide they want a prisoner to interrogate or take hostage.  Maybe they'll want to RL&L him later, in which case a decapitation would close that course of action to them.  Detailed, fiat kill descriptions have implications for agency.

As a player, I also don't much like DMs who waste time on combat descriptions - I'd rather they kept combat moving quickly.  I've definitely had the "oh boy, here goes this R.A. Salvatore wannabe again, narrating every attack" feeling at the table before.  The clock's ticking towards end of session, we got places to be and stuff to steal, and it's only a six-to-ten-second combat round anyway.  I think there's value in keeping the combat loop tight, and descriptions are a very easy thing to cut.  I recognize that it's a wargamer perspective.

Anyway, I expect that rather then the 300-style descriptions being advocated for, I'll stick with at most saga-style descriptions:
But when Egil sees this, he runs at Gunnar and makes a cut at him; Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill and struck him in the middle, and Gunnar hoists him up on the bill and hurls him out into Rangriver.
While I was happy to re-learn the term abduction, and I appreciate its importance in play when using random tables heavily, and I'm a Musashi enthusiast, I still thought that the repeated Musashi references in that chapter were kind of...  eh.  It's an acknowledgement of metis, but a somewhat opaque and unhelpful acknowledgement.

The mashups chapter was very different from how I hack up systems; an interesting perspective, but not what I expected.  I was a little disappointed, I think, because an earlier chapter referred to the mashups chapter for suggestions on system modification, and then it only covered a very specific method of modification.  It does dispel any doubt about parts of ACKS being Traveller-derived, though.

Conclusions:

Overall, I thought the kindle version was worth the $5 and three to four hours to read.  I think for ACKS DMs and players, it's a good look into why some things are the way they are, and how they were intended to be used.

I think the most interesting section to a broader slice of the OSR who are into "Rulings, not Rules" is the Canons of Interpretation.  This is probably the most unique part of the book; you can find other people talking about agency, or how to link pieces in a sandbox, or how to not wargame (or only sometimes wargame) your opposition, but nobody's talking about jurisprudence.  I think it would've been really interesting to see an alternate ordering of the chapters of this book, talking about the four roles of the DM and discussing those roles in order of priority, with the section on judging and rulings coming first, then worldbuilding, then playing the opposition, and finally concerns of storytelling.  I get why it's laid out the way it is, though; it's in opposition to the position that Guarantor of Fun and Storytelling are the central functions, and it has to deal with those before shifting into assertion.

I think the book is squarely aimed at the "new DM running 5e", and I think the ordering is pretty reasonable for that case.  I don't know how effective it would be at persuading DMs of that demographic to pursue agency, since I am not in that situation.  I speculate that it might be effective if they've had some negative experiences with low-agency play previously, but I dunno if it'll work otherwise; I think usually you already have to have a little doubt in your own position in order to be persuaded effectively.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 4: Miscellany

Continued from part 3

This is just a big pile of quotes that I thought were interesting, but didn't feel like needed too much elaboration.

"[Lucian] shows that...  the myth is what the author makes it; it is a theme, a suggestion, from which new fancies may arise."

"Over that lake thai se lygge / A wonder longe narowe brygge / two mile of lengthe hit was semande / And scaisely the brede of ane hande."
An Irish description of the Bridge of Dread, two miles long and the breadth of a hand, from the Vision of Adamnan.

"There is a pretty scene with an elf or dwarf, true of word, as these wights always are."

"In the Middle Ages, Germany is ahead of France in a kind which is reckoned peculiarly French; the earliest fabliaux are in German Latin, with Swabians for comic heroes - the story of the Snow-Child, and How the Swabian Made the King Say 'That's a Story!'."
I feel like dark ages German comedic poetry might be the most obscure topic I've ever read about.

"The appearance of Sigrun the Valkyrie in the air, riding with her company of armed maidens to take Helgi for her champion, is one of the magical adventures that make these romances of the North so different from the Anglo-Saxon stories.  There is no elf-queen in Beowulf."
To which Tolkien surely replied, "Hold my tea."

"Not to wine do I wake you, nor to women's spell, but I wake you to the stern play of the war-goddess."
From the Bjarkamal, which is a great name.

"The Icelandic poets had studied in their own manner the poem that is meant for direct assault, like the Provencal sirventes, not to speak of Archillocus or Catullus.  One of them was called Serpent-Tongue (Worm-tongue, Ormstunga) and the name was deserved by many more."
So you see, Wormtongue was actually a bard.

"[Cynewulf] is a tale like that of Finnesburh, or Roland, or Percy Reed, a good defence against enemies, an old motive repeated often enough in real conflicts without a poet to record the tragedy, and never so often repeated in prose or rhyme as to lose its interest or its dignity."

"All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography, or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage."
A stylistic consideration - do your games have faceless multitudes?

"A green knoll, at the face of the sun and the back of the wind, where they were near to their friends and far from their foes."
An example of antithesis in Irish poetry.

"The stories, whether of cattle spoils or abductions, voyages, wooing, or violent death, according to the Irish Catalogue of favorite topics, are full of wonders; and even simple business, like ordinary fighting, is described with an air of surprise."
There're plenty of Norse sourcebooks, and a few for post-Roman Britain, but man, I feel like a game set in fantasy Ireland with adventure seeds drawn from the Catalogue could be pretty great.  Like Pendragon but with more cattle rustling.

"The French poem of the pilgrimage of Charlemagne is not affected by the crusade, and must have been composed before it.  The interest in it is largely comic; the enormous boasting of the paladins and their miraculous successes are more like the humour of Morgante and other Italian stories than the heroism of Roland."
Here's to another thousand years of paladin jokes.

"The song of Roland, though earlier than the First Crusade, is a crusading epic - the poem of Christendom against the infidel.  It is also the epic of France, "sweet France"; the honor of the kingdom is constantly remembered, and not merely out of duty, but because it is the spirit and life of the poem, as much as Rome is in the Aeneid.  Naturally, the grandeur and solemnity of these ruling thoughts makes the epic of Roncesvalles very different from most of the Teutonic poems, where characters have seldom any impersonal cause to fight for, and the heroic moral is restricted to the bond of loyalty between a lord and his companions...   The heroes lose as dramatis personae what they gain as representing grand ideals...  The epic of Roland may be taken, in a way, as closing the Dark Ages."
Another stylistic consideration - are your characters tied to abstract loyalties, or personal loyalties?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 3: Homeric Combat

Continued from part 2.

Moving past the Latin, through old English and Saxon, and then to the Norse Eddas, there was a quote that I found interesting:
The [Norse] poets cannot spend time in story-telling.  The persons, their wills and thoughts, are more interesting than their exploits.  The best of the narrative poems, such as the Lay of Thor's Hammer, are comparatively light and simple; where there is a weighty historical matter, such as the fall of the Nibelungs, hardly any space at all is given to the fighting.  The Northern poetry knows not the Homeric method, which is not wanting to the Anglo-Saxons, French, and Germans, to the poets of the Waltharius, Byrhtnoth, Roland, and the Nibelunglied.  It is not for want of interest: it was because the available poetical forms were not adapted for description or history...  The heroic spirit of Gudrun and her brothers is within the comprehension of the poets, and they have the right means to bring it out in their verse; but... they do not choose to to employ the regular formulas for epic battles.  The slaughter "grim and great" at the close of the Nibelunglied is told by the Austrian poet in the same way as the killing of suitors by Odysseus; but in the Elder Edda it... is taken as something understood. 
One result of this economy of narrative in the Northern poems was that narrative had to find another channel.  The Icelandic Sagas are the complement of the poetry; they have the breadth and freedom that the poems have not.

Here's an example of what he means, from the Helgakvitha:

9. Mighty he grew | in the midst of his friends,
 The fair-born elm, | in fortune's glow; 
 To his comrades gold | he gladly gave, 
 The hero spared not | the blood-flecked hoard.

10. Short time for war | the chieftain waited,
 When fifteen winters | old he was;
 Hunding he slew, | the hardy wight 
 Who long had ruled | o'er lands and men.

11. Of Sigmund's son | then next they sought
 Hoard and rings, | the sons of Hunding;
 They bade the prince | requital pay
 For booty stolen | and father slain.

12. The prince let not | their prayers avail,
 Nor gold for their dead | did the kinsmen get;
 Waiting, he said, | was a mighty storm 
 Of lances gray | and Othin's grimness.

13. The warriors forth | to the battle went, 
 The field they chose | at Logafjoll;
 Frothi's peace | midst foes they broke,
 Through the isle went hungrily | Vithrir's hounds.

14. The king then sat, | when he had slain 
 Eyjolf and Alf, | 'neath the eagle-stone;
 Hjorvarth and Hovarth, | Hunding's sons, 
 The kin of the spear-wielder, | all had he killed.

The main devices here are alliteration, allusion, and kenning; elm meaning man, storm meaning war, Vithrir's hounds being wolves, Frothi's peace alluding to another historical figure.  You can call a thing by another name, but it's hard to call an action by another name.  By comparison, Homeric verse is full of simile, which is much more able to describe action.
Many of [Ermoldus' similes] are taken from the birds, and are of a genuine Homeric kind: like thrushes settling on the vintage in autumn, and refusing to be scared by the cymbal of the vexed husbandman; as birds shrieking after the hawk which has carried one of their party away; as ducks hiding from an eagle in the water-weeds and the mud.
I thought it was sort of funny that the old poets ran into the same difficulty with detailed combat and trading off time describing it that we do in RPGs.  I don't think I have ever used a simile to describe an action in combat in D&D, and certainly not a one with multiple clauses like "after the eagle who has carried one of their party away".  But it's also pretty rare to elide a combat to the same degree that the Helgakvitha does.

I also found the degree to which available poetic devices influenced this interesting; they limited the search space, the set of tradeoffs you could make, in the same way that if you are playing Runequest or Dark Heresy your combat descriptions have to include hit locations, while there probably exists an RPG without fully-developed combat mechanics where you almost have to gloss over combat.  We sort of had this problem with mass combat in ACKS before Domains at War came out; the situation arose and we didn't have the mechanics to resolve or describe it in detail.

So something to reflect on - where do you want to put the detail in your games?  Is your system helping you or hindering you in doing that?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 2: Gerhard and Bucephalus Go to Chartres

Continued from Part 1

After the discussion of common literary forms, The Dark Ages moves on to Latin, and here there was a clear gap between Ker's expectations of his reader and what modern education provided.  I did not spend too much time trying to decipher the Latin poetry.  More interesting were the relayed stories of monastic life, which were recorded in Latin.  There was one particularly interesting passage, where Gerhard the Benedictine talks about his journey from the monastery at Rheims to that at Chartres (about 150 miles) in 991 AD:
[A messenger from Chartres] produced a letter urging me to read the Aphorisms of Hippocrates.  This gave me great pleasure, and I determined to set out for Chartres along with my envoy and a boy to attend me.  From the abbot I received no more than one palfrey.  Without money or letters of credit I reached Orbais [about 30 miles], a place renowned for charity, and there was much refreshed in conversation with the abbot, and munificently entertained.  I left on the morrow for Meaux [another 40 miles].  But the perplexities of a forest which I and my companions entered were not without their evil fortune; we went wrong at cross-roads, and wandered six leagues [20 miles] out of our way.  Just past the castle of Theodoric, the palfrey, which before had appeared a Bucephalus, now began to drag like a sluggish ass.  Now the sun had passed the South, and, all the air dissolving into rain, was hastening to his setting in the West, when that strong Bucephalus was overcome by the strain, failed, and sank beneath the boy who was riding him, and as if struck by lightning expired at the sixth milestone from the city...  
I left the boy there with the baggage, told him what to answer to passers-by, bade him beware of falling asleep, and along with the Chartres messenger, got to Meaux.  I pass on to the bridge, with scarcely light to see by.  Then looking more narrowly I was assailed by new mischances.  There were so many large gaps in the bridge that the visitors of the townsfolk can only have got over that day with hazard.  The man of Chartres, full of quickness and of good sense likewise for the difficulties of the journey, after looking all about for a ferry and finding none, came back to the perils of the bridge: Heaven granted him to get the horses safe over.  For in the gaping places he sometimes put his shield under the horses' feet, sometimes laid loose planks over, stooping and rising and coming and going till he had brought the horses, and me with them, safe across. 
I don't really want to keep block-quoting this story, but for those who hate loose ends, Gerhard went to the Abbey of St. Faron in Meaux and slept, the messenger went back out to get the boy and they slept at the foot of the bridge and crossed in the morning.  They left the boy at St. Faron's and proceeded on to Chartres, where Gerhard read the book he was looking for.

I felt this bit highlighted some interesting features of dark age wilderness adventures.  They did a bit better than 24 miles a day, but this was a relatively well-settled part of France, near Paris, and there were apparently roads of some sort (hence the crossroads).  I'm not sure where they got the extra horses (maybe the abbot of Orbais).  I thought it was really interesting that there was a chain of monasteries, about one every other 24-mile hex, and elsewhere Ker mentions another chain of monasteries including St. Gall in Switzerland, which linked the monasteries of Italy with those of southern Germany.  I was sort of impressed that they managed to go 20 miles out of their way, since their party included a messenger who had just done this route in the opposite direction.  The state of disrepair of the bridge at Meaux was somewhat surprising, given that it was a settled region with literal milestones.  The whole thing, traveling 150 miles to read a book and having a wilderness adventure where there were no enemies but still tension, just struck me as rather remarkable.

Hexes right around 24-25 miles I think


Continued in part 3

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Book Review: Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 1: On the Epic

W.P. Ker was a contemporary of Tolkien's, a fellow Catholic professor of literature in late 19th to early 20th century Britain.  Tolkien quoted a powerful passage from Ker in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics:
[The Twilight of the Gods] is the assertion of the individual freedom against all terrors and temptations of the world.  It is absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.  The Northern gods have an extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins.  The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.
And that was a pretty grand quote, so I figured I'd go read the source from which it originated, Ker's The Dark Ages, especially since it was only a dollar on kindle (though I will say, atrocious scan quality, lots of gibberish where unicode didn't get rendered properly, and page footers are spliced into the middle of text.  On the other hand, lots of funny typos as a result of bad scan, like "La Chanson de Boland" and "The Park Ages").

I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this before.  It is, I imagine, like reading lecture notes from a college literature course, of which I took none.  Works are discussed, linked to other works and to overarching themes in literature during the period (400-1100 AD roughly) and sometimes summarized.  It almost feels like an index, like I could use it to pick out interesting things to read and see where they fit into a bigger picture.  It's organized by language, and within each language or language-family, roughly chronologically (but sometimes by style - the Eddas vs the Sagas in the Norse section).  He never tells quite the whole story; he assumes history sometimes which is unfamiliar these days, and often alludes to things.  I ended up looking a lot of stuff up, and this led me to read interesting things, so I appreciated this tendency; it reminded me of The Book of Tea's axiom about leaving gaps which draw the observer in.  It might serve well in sandbox gaming if executed properly.

There's a very interesting section near the beginning on characteristics of the epic poems, the Song of Roland and Beowulf, which I think bears heavily on D&D:
Epic requires a particular kind of warfare, not too highly organized, and the manner of the Homeric battle is found again in Germany, Ireland, and old France.  The fighters are bound by loyalty to their chieftains; their lords are their patrons and entertainers who have given them gifts.  When the time comes they may have to be reminded of their obligations, and one of the constantly recurring passages in epic is the appeal to memory of benefits received.  The captain reminds his host, or one of the elder men reminds his associates, of the bygone feasting in the hall when the horn went round and the professions of bravery along with it...  
So Wiglaf in Beowulf speaks to his companions when they refuse to follow their king on his last enterprise: "I remember how we promised our lord at the feast in hall when he gave us rings, that we would make him requital for the armor he gave us, rings and good swords, if need should befall.  And now it has fallen."...
The reproach of Agamemnon to Menestheus and Odysseus - "You were the first at the call to my feast" - is repeated in the king's address to his men in the Northern poem of Hlod and Angantyr: "We were many at the mead and now we are few; I see no man in my company, for all my bidding or the rings I have given him, that will ride to meet the Huns."
Which is to say that if running a game in the style of the epic poems, henchmen are important, and their checking of morale is important.  The contrast between the morale rolls of NPCs and the heroic agency of PCs, I guess.

Another interesting passage follows:
Neither Popes nor Emperors nor educational reformers nor improvements in the art of war were able to obscure the heroic view of life.  For the purposes of poetry there was retained a kind of archaic simplicity in politics which did not allow the heroes to become too much involved in affairs, which let them stand out, self-reliant and distinct, as heroes of epic should.  Similarly the fashions of war, which in the actual world were not purely Homeric, were by common consent, in poetry and story-telling, allowed to keep their old rules: room is left to see how the several champions demean themselves.  Also, as if by a kind of indistinct perception that large warfare was too difficult or too complex and abstract for poetry, the epic turns by preference to adventures where the hero is isolated or left with a small company, where he is surprised and assailed in a house by night, as at Finnesburh, or where he meets his enemies in a journey and has to put his back to a rock, like Walter of Aquitaine.
It's a remarkable description also of the heroic conventions of most fantasy RPGs.  Surely some of this is inheritance from their literary sources, but the RPG group is under cognitive-load pressures similar to those of the poets to focus on heroes and to keep them largely unentangled from the minutia of (say) rulership and logistics.  And this is one source of player-friction in ACKS, the conflict between expectations about the structure of heroic narratives and the realities of gameplay.

There is a divergence from RPG player behavior in matters of ethics, though.  Ker argues that the heroic poetry was written for a noble audience, and that its heroes were, by and large, rather moral, such as their morality was.  As an example:
The respect for the slain enemy [in the Waltharius] is not a new thing, nor purely Christian.  As Grimm points out, Arrow Odd after the fight at Samsey buries Angantyr and his brothers [after killing them].  Other Icelandic references might be easily multiplied, and compared with the chivalrous romances where the true knight gives housel [the Eucharist] to his enemy after mortally wounding him.
This is something that I think the ACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook got rather right, with the Warrior Code rules.  It's still not perfect - my players did still lie and steal and mistreat the dead.  But they stopped and thought about it first, which is progress.

There's also a good section on riddles near the discussion of epics.

"Who are the brides that walk over the reefs, and drive along the firths?
The white-hooded ladies have a hard bed; in calm weather they make no stir."

To be continued in part 2.